Reimagining the aimlessly wandering woman.
I started noticing the ads in the magazines I read. Here is a woman in an asymmetrical black swimsuit, a semitransparent palm tree superimposed on her head, a pink pole behind her. Here is a woman lying down, miraculously balanced on some kind of balustrade, in a white button-down, khaki skirt, and sandals, the same dynamic play of light and palm trees and buildings around her. In the top-right corner, the words Dans l’oeil du flâneur—“in the eye of the flâneur”—and beneath, the Hermès logo. The flâneur though whose “eye” we’re seeing seems to live in Miami. Not a well-known walking city, but why not—surely flânerie needn’t be confined to melancholic European capitals.
The theme was set by Hermès’s artistic director, Pierre-Alexis Dumas. While the media coverage of the campaign and the traveling exhibition that complemented it breathlessly adopted the term, Dumas gave a pretty illuminated definition of it. Flânerie, he explained, is not about “being idle” or “doing nothing.” It’s an “attitude of curiosity … about exploring everything.” It flourished in the nineteenth century, he continued, as a form of resistance to industrialization and the rationalization of everyday life, and “the roots of the spirit of Hermès are in nineteenth-century Flânerie.” This is pretty radical rhetoric for the director of a luxury-goods company with a €4.1 million yearly revenue. Looking at the ads, as well as the merchandise—including an eight-speed bicycle called “The Flâneur” that retailed for $11.3k—it seems someone at Hermès didn’t share, or understand, Dumas’s vision.
There’s something so attractive about wandering aimlessly through the city, taking it all in (especially if we’re wearing Hermès while we do it). We all, deep down, want to detach from our lives. The flâneur, since everyone wants to be one, has a long history of being many different things to different people, to such an extent that the concept has become one of these things we point to without really knowing what we mean—a kind of shorthand for urban, intellectual, curious, cosmopolitan. This is what Hermès is counting on: that we will associate Hermès products with those values and come to believe that buying them will reinforce those aspects of ourselves.
The earliest mention of a flâneur is in the late sixteenth century, possibly borrowed from the Scandinavian flana, “a person who wanders.” It fell largely out of use until the nineteenth century, and then it caught on again. In 1806, an anonymous pamphleteer wrote of the flâneur as “M. Bonhomme,” a man-about-town who comes from sufficient wealth to be able to have the time to wander the city at will, taking in the urban spectacle. He hangs out in cafés and watches the various inhabitants of the city at work and at play. He is interested in gossip and fashion, but not particularly in women. In an 1829 dictionary, a flâneur is someone “who likes to do nothing,” someone who relishes idleness. Balzac’s flâneur took two main forms: the common flâneur, happy to aimlessly wander the streets, and the artist-flâneur, who poured his experiences in the city into his work. (This was the more miserable type of flâneur, who, Balzac noted in his 1837 novel César Birotteau, “is just as frequently a desperate man as an idle one.”) Baudelaire similarly believed that the ultimate flâneur, the true connoisseur of the city, was an artist who “sang of the sorry dog, the poor dog, the homeless dog, the wandering dog [le chien flâneur].” Walter Benjamin’s flâneur, on the other hand, was more feral, a figure who “completely distances himself from the type of the philosophical promenader, and takes on the features of the werewolf restlessly roaming a social wildness,” he wrote in the late 1930s. An “intoxication” comes over him as he walks “long and aimlessly through the streets.”
And so the flâneur shape-shifts according to time, place, and agenda. If he didn’t exist, we would have had to invent him to embody our fantasies about nineteenth-century Paris—or about ourselves, today.
Hermès is similarly ambiguous about who, exactly, the flâneur in their ads is. Is he the man (or woman?) looking at the woman on the balustrade? Or is she the flâneur, too? Is the flâneur the photographer, or the (male?) gaze he represents? Is there a flâneuse, in Hermès’ version? Are we looking at her? Are we—am I, holding the magazine—her?
But I can’t be, because I’m the woman holding the magazine, being asked to buy Hermès products. I click through the pictures of the exhibition Hermès organized on the banks of the Seine, Wanderland, and one of the curiosities on view—joining nineteenth-century canes, an array of ties, an Hermès purse handcuffed to a coatrack—is an image of an androgynous person crossing the road, holding a stack of boxes so high he or she can’t see around them. Is this flânerie, Hermès-style?
Many critics over the years have argued that shopping was at odds with the idle strolling of the flâneur: he walked the arcades, the glass-roofed shopping streets that were the precursor to the department store, but he did not shop. Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, writing on the flâneur in her book Paris as Revolution, argues that women could not flâner because women who were shopping in the grands magasins were caught in an economy of spectacle, being tricked into buying things, and having their desires stimulated. By contrast the flâneur’s very raison d’être was having no reason whatsoever.
Before the twentieth century, women did not have the freedom to wander idly through the streets of Paris. The only women with the freedom to circulate (and a limited freedom at that) were the streetwalkers and ragpickers; Baudelaire’s mysterious and alluring passante, immortalized in his poem “To a (Female) Passer-by,” is assumed to have been a woman of the night. Even the word flâneuse doesn’t technically exist in French, except, according to an 1877 dictionary entry, to designate a kind of lounge chair. (So Hermès’s woman reclining on a balustrade was right on the money, for the late nineteenth century.)
But why must the flâneuse be restricted to being a female version of a male concept, especially when no one can agree on what the flâneur is anyway? Why not look at what women were actually doing on the city streets? What could the flâneuse look like then?
In her recent collection Garments Against Women, the poet Anne Boyer writes:
I will soon write a long, sad book called A Woman Shopping. It will be a book about what we are required to do and also a book about what we are hated for doing. It will be a book about envy and a book about barely visible things. This book would be a book also about the history of literature and literature’s uses against women, also against literature and for it, also against shopping and for it. The flâneur is a poet is an agent free of purses, but a woman is not a woman without a strap over her shoulder or a clutch in her hand.
These paradoxes and contradictions encapsulate what we all face in the city. Do we want to blend in or stand out? Do we crave anonymity or fear loneliness? But women experience this in a particular way, wary of attracted unwanted attention, but also wanting to be noticed, to exist, to count, to be seen on their own terms. This is the radical move of the flâneuse: I will shop, or I won’t shop, but I am not defined by it either way. The barriers and expectations women negotiate in the city have called for a more active kind of transgression than idle wandering. Unstrap that purse, unclutch that bag! The city can be a site of great freedom for anyone, but especially for women. Laying claim to flânerie has always enabled us to disrupt the lives we were expected to live.
The flâneuse is the kind of woman who writes books, and the kind they write books about. You’re not worried about the flâneuse walking alone in the city: she knows how to stand up for herself. This makes me think of the Walking Woman, who the American writer Mary Austin wrote about in a 1909 short story of that name. The narrator describes this woman as a cipher to inhabitants of the Southwestern desert towns she passes through. “We heard of her again in the Carrisal, and again at Adobe Station”:
She was the Walking Woman, and no one knew her name, but because she was a sort of whom men speak respectfully, they called her to her face Mrs Walker, and she answered if she was so inclined. She came and went about our western world on no discoverable errand, and whether she had some place of refuge where she lay by in the interim, or whether between her seldom, unaccountable appearances in our quarter she went on steadily walking, was never learned.
Along with her name, the Walking Woman has “walked off all sense of society-made values.” But when the narrator finally gets to speak with her, the Walking Woman tells her there are three things that are worth having in this world: love, work, and a child. She has had, and lost, each of them in turn. And so the narrator finally disagrees with the Walking Woman’s philosophy: “To work and to love and to bear children. That sounds easy enough. But the way we live establishes so many things of much more importance.” What those things are, Austin doesn’t say. The woman who walks is outside of their settlement, outside of all settlements, by necessity, but how to live within the settlement while maintaining the freedom of the walking woman? That is the question Austin’s story gestures at. Where is the happy medium between being an independent woman and a vagabond?
The flâneuses I found, the ones I wrote my book about, go walking in cities, but often with a purpose: to throw off the weight of their families, their husbands, their social roles, to explore who or what they can be, traveling around the world feeding off the chemical reaction, the flinting spark, provoked by the encounter with the foreign city. Flâneuserie—to coin a term—is about women moving from being looked at to looking. Through movement, we assert our subjectivity. The journalist Martha Gellhorn’s travel writing and war reporting, for example, is an engaged form of flânerie: she passionately believes that what she sees must be told. But how does she see it? By wandering around cities, reporting not on the great currents of history, but on everyday human life, writing “from the ground up.” The flâneuse is someone who gets to know the city by wandering its streets, investigating its dark corners, peering behind its facades, penetrating its secret courtyards. Rather than wandering aimlessly, like the flâneur, the most salient characteristic of the flâneuse is that she goes where she’s not supposed to.
I believe Hermès’s artistic director when he says that, in the nineteenth century, the flâneur challenged commercialized ways of being in the world. But today, as the flâneur is co-opted out from under us, the flâneuse is the more radical idea.
Lauren Elkin is the author of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London.